Safely Thaw, Roast and Serve a Turkey for Thanksgiving

A turkey dinner is actually one of the easier dinners to prepare. As with any meat dish, food safety should be considered. These guidelines will help defrost safely, roast to the correct temperature and deal with the leftovers. Web addresses and phone numbers for some of the “turkey hotlines” are included near the end of the article.

97 percent of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey at Thanksgiving; about 736 million pounds of turkey were consumed in the United States during Thanksgiving in 2016.

Turkey Nutrition

A 3 ounce (85 grams) serving of turkey breast (about the size of a deck of playing cards) has 120 calories, 1 gram fat, 45 milligrams sodium, 26 grams protein, 8% daily value iron. This equals 8% more protein, and less fat per serving than chicken breast or lean beef. Turkey is low in cholesterol.

Choose the Right Size Turkey

  • Whole bird – allow 1 pound (450 grams) per person
  • Boneless turkey breast – ½ pound (225 grams) per person
  • Bone-in turkey breast – ¾ pound (340 grams) per person

Safely Defrosting Turkey

Thaw turkey safely. It must be kept below 40 degrees F (4 degrees C) while thawing. The University of Minnesota Extension gives these tips for thawing turkeys.

There are 3 safe ways to thaw: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in a microwave if advised in the instruction book.


Allow 24 hours per five pounds. That means an 8 – 12 pound (3.6 – 5.4 kg) bird takes 2 – 3 days, 12 – 16 pounds (5.4 – 7.25 kg) 3 – 4 days, over 16 pounds (7.25 kg) 4 – 6 days. Once thawed, cook within 1 to 2 days.

Cold Water

Place breast down in the plastic wrapper in cold water to cover. Change the water every 30 minutes, making sure the surface of the bird stays cool. Allow 30 minutes per pound. This means a 14 pound bird will take about 5 hours. Do not leave in the sink overnight, it will get too warm and spoil. Cook immediately after thawing.

Microwave Oven

Check the instruction book. Cook immediately after thawing.

Roasting a Turkey


  1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees F. (163 degrees C)
  2. Put the bird in a large roasting pan breast side up.
  3. Use metal skewers to secure the wing tips to the breast. Skewer the flap of skin over the cavity to the top. Some like to add cut up apples or oranges to the cavity to add flavor and moistness.
  4. Salting the skin will not add to the flavor of the meat, and can cause the skin to dry out in the oven.
  5. Make a loose tent of aluminum foil over the bird. Remove the foil for the last hour of cooking time to allow browning. The foil helps keep the turkey moist.
  6. Do not use a paper grocery bag. These are now made from recycled materials, and are not considered safe for food preparation.
  7. Many people like to cook turkeys in a plastic bag, this works well – just be sure to use a baking bag.
  8. Allow 30 minutes per pound.
  9. Allow 20 minutes for the bird to rest before carving, after removing from the oven.

When is the Turkey Done?

A turkey is safely cooked when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F (74 degrees C). Use a meat thermometer to check the temperature in the innermost part of the thigh (where the leg meets the body), and in the thickest part of the breast.

Even if the bird has a pop-up timer, it is recommended to also check the temperature.

Should a Turkey be Washed Before Cooking?

Several universities have conducted studies around this question. Evidence shows there is no benefit to washing meat and poultry before cooking. Actually, washing can put bacteria from hands and surfaces onto the meat; so washing has the potential of causing contamination. The US Dept of Agriculture (USDA) does not recommend washing meats. Cook to the proper temperature to destroy any present bacteria.

Can I Stuff the Turkey?

According to the USDA, stuffing a turkey can increase the risk of food borne illness. It is difficult to achieve and maintain a sufficient temperature in the stuffing in the bird cavity. 165 degrees F (74 degrees C) is needed to kill any bacteria present.

It is best to cook the stuffing outside of the bird to 165 degrees (74 degrees C). Remove the turkey about 30 minutes before done. Loosely stuff the bird; it will pick up the meat flavor and moistness.

Safely Storing Leftovers

  • Meat should be put in the refrigerator within 2 hours after removing from the oven.
  • Use leftover turkey within 3 to 4 days, or freeze to use within 4 months.
  • Leftover stuffing and gravy should be used within 2 days.
  • Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees F (74 degrees C), or until hot to the touch in the center of the food.

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